Wednesday, April 17, 2013
This Gun For Hire (1942)
The movie was based on Graham Greene's novel 'A Gun For Sale', but was adapted into a screenplay set in California, rather than Europe, by Albert Maltz and W.R. Burnett. It was directed by Frank Tuttle, who would direct Ladd again in the noir 'Hell On Frisco Bay' in 1955 but he also directed 1935's version of 'The Glass Key', which would be remade in 1942 starring Alan Ladd and Veronica Lake, in a successful attempt by Paramount to continue with the success of the pairing of Ladd and Lake. The cinematography was done by John Seitz who has one of the most impressive film noir resumes when it comes to lighting, his work can be seen in movies such as 'Double Indemnity', 'Sunset Blvd', 'The Big Clock' and 'The Lost Weekend'. The score was done by David Buttolph ('Kiss Of Death', 'Boomerang!', 'Crime Wave'). So while this movie might be an early noir, it oozed with noir potential behind the camera.
The story revolves around Philip Raven, a misanthropic contract killer whose left wrist healed badly after it got broken in a traumatic experience in his youth, which also sowed the seeds for his hatred towards people and his future profession. He's the (now) archetypical cold-blooded, seemingly emotionless, solo operating killer who has his own moral code (he doesn't kill children and loves only cats) that became a staple in movies afterwards, but had been virtually unseen before this movie, before Raven. At the start of the movie he's doing a job for Willard Gates (Laird Cregar) in San Fransisco, retrieving some documents and killing the man who stole them, and also killing a female witness. Afterwards he's paid by Gates in small bills, but Gates is double-crossing Raven. Gates had earlier reported the money as stolen from his employer's company, a large chemicals manufacturer. Police lieutenant Michael Crane (Preston) is assigned to the stolen money case, interrupting his holiday with his girl Ellen Graham (Lake), who works in San Fransisco as a singer/magician. Graham however is auditioning for a job at Gates' nightclub back in Los Angeles, which he runs on the side. It turns out a senator, who is running an investigation into companies who are selling secrets to enemies of the state (this is during World War II after all), suspects the chemicals company which Gates works for is one such company, and he is looking at Graham to work in Gates' nightclub and see what she can dig up. Raven eventually finds out he's been paid in marked bills, and wants revenge on Gates, and follows Gates to LA. Graham is taking the same train to go to Gates' club, and Raven and Graham meet by accident. They eventually form an uneasy bond, sharing a common enemy in Gates. Crane however isn't a bad cop and is hot on Raven's trail and also makes his way to Los Angeles. While Gates is seeking refuge in his office, and Crane is trying to arrest Raven, Raven and Graham are trying to get to Gates...
There are many things to like about this movie, and I like them a lot. Ladd's portrayal of the stoic and misanthropic Raven is exhilarating. He's got a lot of intensity, cherishes his isolation (but cats are always welcome), hardly ever shows emotion except with his eyes, has a menacing aura around him and and is a general tough guy. Lake on the other hand combines her natural sexiness with a cool, street-wise demeanor, she might be pretty but she's not going to simply sob if her stocking gets ripped. When Raven steals some money from her, and she finds out, rather than get all angry and upset, she simply asks for her money back and to leave it at that. And as mentioned before, there's a lot of chemistry between Ladd and Lake. They definitely hit it off on-screen. Cregar is perfect as the slimey and cowardly Gates who's got a thing for chocolate mints. It's a shame he died only a few years later, he also played a memorable role in another early noir, 'I Wake Up Screaming' (1941).
There are also things that aren't all that memorable here. Robert Preston's character is fairly forgettable and his part seems to have been rewritten to give more room to Raven (not that I'm complaining!). As I mentioned above, Ellen Graham comes across as a fairly independent woman who can think for herself. But her relationship with Crane is the complete opposite of that and is very conservative in what their dreams and respective positions in the relationship are. It's a bit awkward to be honest, the difference between Graham the singer and Graham the girlfriend. And the last few seconds of the movie when she professes her love for Crane are pure cheese, I really could have done without it! There is also a very patriotic angle here with the secrets being sold to a war time enemy and Raven eventually not only seeking his own revenge but also trying to help Graham with her just cause. Considering this movie was taped during WWII it is understandable the studio wanted to not just have Raven help the poor, innocent girl so to say, but also redeem himself even more by doing the right thing for his country. But I could've done without it to be honest, it comes off a bit heavy-handed and too obvious.
While this movie wouldn't usually be brought up in a list of the best or most iconic film noirs, it is certainly a classic in my book and deserves to at least be considered for any noir list. It helped define a new kind of cinematic killer, it was the first step in Alan Ladd's path towards becoming a film noir icon, Ladd & Lake are just pure magic together, and it is quite simply a great and thrilling movie. I would settle for less.